MARTIN LUTHER KING THE STATUE
By Samuel T. Ross-Lee
It’s that time of year again. The first real holiday of the New Year. The recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday. This holiday is not supposed to be a holiday in the sense of traditional holidays. According to the MLK devotees, King Day, as it is affectionately known, is not a “Day Off, but a Day On.”
It’s a day for Democrats, Republicans and Independents, African-Americans and other races, Saints and Sinners, Clergy and Politicians, Street Activist and Suite Activist to come together and honor this assassinated leader of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Everybody loves, honors, and respects Martin Luther King, Jr. Everybody!
Well, Martin, we have a problem. When you are loved and embraced by everybody, you are really loved and embraced by nobody. Dean Martin may have gotten it right with his hit song: “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” But what does it mean when everybody loves you. It probably means that somebody is lying.
King was not a universally beloved figure while alive, not even within the Negro Community of his day. Some disagreed with his philosophy of Non-violence. Others disagreed with his tactic of Non-violent Direct Action. Some of his closest aids in the struggle disagreed with him for denouncing the War in Vietnam (and going against President Johnson) in his sermon at The Riverside Church in New York exactly one year before his murder. Donations to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) dropped precipitously following King’s public denouncement of the war.
King was not even welcomed with open arms in the city of his birth when he returned home to live in Atlanta the story goes. Whether apocryphal or not, the story is told (and is believable) that his neighbors were concerned about their houses being destroyed in any attempt to bomb King’s, as had been done in Birmingham, Alabama.
Political opposition to King existed from racist and the politicians who represented them, of course. But, it also existed with conservative Negroes who thought that he, and practically everyone else who did not “work within the system to effect change”, was moving too fast or too aggressively. The leaders of his own religious denomination distanced themselves from him and stripped his followers of their leadership positions within the organization.
There were bitter jealousies and rivalries within the Civil Rights Community. Historians record that Thurgood Marshall was not particularly fond of King’s popularity which grew from King’s visibility on Television and in Print media. Marshall was doing the hard work of legal advocacy in backwoods courthouses and in federal courtrooms where cameras were not allowed and where crowds of people neither participated in nor witnessed the challenges Marshall faced, as they did with King. Now, in the end, Marshall was elevated to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court for his work, and King received a bullet to the neck for his, but why let truths cloud our perspectives. Marshall did not like the man.
King was more than a controversial figure. He was hated by many, resented by others in prominent positions, and looked upon as suspect by still others. But now, he is universally loved? I don’t think so. Some of the people who hated King “back in the day” still do. And many who claim to love him today have little idea of what that means. King was a legitimate prophet. He possessed all of the traits of the biblical prophets, too. He went to his task reluctantly, as they did. He was personally flawed and a sinner, as they were. He saw clearly the evils of his day, as they did. He stood before a nation that was unwilling to listen to his social critique, as the nation was already comfortable with the placid and pacifying pronouncements of their chosen “prophets,”. He spoke truth to power, though he was elected to no office and had no power to force the nation to heed his words, just like the prophets of old.
Prophets are rarely, if ever, embraced or loved in their own land, even after they are dead. What we do tend to embrace and love is the image we have created of them, against which they cannot protest. We cast the prophet’s image in stone and then make of them what we will.
So, long before King’s statue was chiseled and place on the Mall of the national capital, surrounded by some of his famous (and acceptable) quotes, his image was frozen in the public’s imagination by the media and the dominant culture bent on using him to maintain the status quo, or at least not to upset it, too much.
The use of prophetic sayings and images have long given the powerful a way to use voices from the margins to prop up their malevolent norms. Jesus is the most prominent among those. Doing so provides a buffer between those who might become restlessly volatile, were there no instructions from the margin to calm them down, and those who possess a virtually innate need to maintain business as usual, despite how bad that business may be.
We have detached King from his critique of capitalism run amok, a religion that sides with the wealthy over the poor, the powerful over the marginalized, a race that is too comfortable with getting ahead rather than getting justice, and politics fixed in the “paralysis of analysis” where the uplift of “the least of these” are concerned. We have removed from him the specter of a critical thinker and made of him a wordsmith using flowery language and calming speech.
We have made of him an icon of our conformity. Controlling his image and his words as we chiseled them in stones as well, there never to move or to challenge us in any real way again.
We can all love or at least tolerate King the statue, set in place, never to live, move, or breath nuance into our lives or provide a critique that challenges our assumptions about him or anything else for that matter.
When everyone loves you Martin, no one really does.